Why Florida wants to give transfer vouchers to students bullied over masks

Lawmakers and lawyers taking action against Florida's governor restrictions on mask mandates
By: | August 9, 2021

Some are pushing back against a recent decision by Florida’s Board of Education to expand the reach of its transfer voucher program to encompass students subjected to mask bullying.

In an emergency meeting on Aug. 6, the state school board voted to extend Hope Scholarship Transfer eligibility to children “subjected to harassment or other qualifying adverse, intimidating treatment at school” related to mask mandates.

The board action, which follows Gov. Ron DeSantis’s July 30 Executive Order No. 21-175, provides an avenue for parents to transfer their child(ren) to a private school or another district with transfer scholarships, typically reserved for victims of bullying.

DeSantis’s order directed the state departments of Health and Education to immediately execute rules pursuant to FS Section 120.54 and take any additional agency action ensuring COVID-19 safety protocols do not violate constitutional freedoms or parents’ right to make health care decisions for their minor children, namely mask-wearing. The order also asked actions to protect children with disabilities or health conditions who would be harmed by protocols like face masking requirements.

The department found in Emergency Rule No. 6AER21-01 Pupil Attendance Records for COVID-19, along with Emergency Rule No. 6AER21-02 COVID-19 Hope Scholarship Transfer Procedures, that potential learning loss for certain students under stay-home directives “creates an immediate danger to the public health, safety and welfare of students and requires emergency action.” The former ensures that homework will be provided to students who are under quarantine. The latter provides parents an opt-out choice if facial coverings are required by a district.

Florida Sen. Gary Farmer (D-Lighthouse Point) decried the governor’s order in a letter to Commissioner Richard Corcoran. Farmer said the governor had no statutory authority to instruct the state department of education to engage in rulemaking, nor did the department have the authority to do so on the issue of universal masking mandates.

Attorney Barry Silver of Boca Raton filed a complaint on behalf of a local family for injunctive and declaratory relief claiming, in part, the governor’s executive order violated the Florida constitution. The suit alleges, in part, that many Florida constitutional freedoms would be violated if funds were withheld to local school boards, and further, if the executive order is used to intimidate or prevent boards from enacting a mask mandate, it would violate its own terms.

In The School District of Palm Beach County, Superintendent Michael Burke wrote to parents following the state’s rulemaking decisions that the district would require facial coverings inside schools and on buses for all students attending district-operated schools unless the student’s parent or guardian chooses to opt-out of the requirement.

Burke said district staff will be required to wear a facial covering indoors and on district transportation with no option of opting out. Visitors are required to wear a facial covering while inside and on district property.

Johnny Jackson covers special education issues for LRP Publications.